by Steve Lipman
The verbal sparring starts as soon as Yuri Foreman begins his training session.
Foreman, a native of Belarus who moved with his family to Israel at age 10 to escape anti-Semitism, and then to New York City at 19 alone to prepare for a boxing career, is a fighter with a rare pedigree — a top-ranked light middleweight contender and a rabbinical student. As perhaps befits a guy who pores carefully over religious texts, he is a ring tactician so cautiously methodical that critics call him Yuri “Boreman.”
He’s careful about his training regimen, too, and on a recent morning at Gleason’s Gym he picks up a jump rope to get himself warmed up. Wearing black shorts and black T-shirt, he hops vigorously in place, whirring the rope past his head and toes, hardly breaking a sweat.
“You’re not a real rabbi,” taunts a bystander. “He’s a real rabbi,” the heckler continues, jabbing a finger in the direction of a nearby boxer who is shadow boxing.
Foreman nods, but doesn’t miss a beat. The other boxer, 22-year-old Shmuli Gross, actually is a rabbi, a Brooklyn student at Touro College with rabbinical ordination. But as an amateur, he’s not in Foreman’s league — in the ring, that is.
In his seventh year as a pro, the 29-year-old Foreman, who first put on a pair of boxing gloves at age 7 to defend himself against bullies at his swimming club in Gomel, his hometown, is about to get a title shot in the biggest bout of his life.
Next week, on Nov. 14 — a Saturday night after Shabbat — the undefeated Foreman will face Puerto Rican Daniel Santos, holder of the World Boxing Association light middleweight title, in Las Vegas for the championship.
If Foreman wins, the 154-pounder will establish a series of firsts: the first Israeli boxer with a WBA title (though Foreman lived in Israel less than a decade, he has Israeli citizenship and considers himself an Israeli); the first Jewish WBA champion in three decades (light heavyweight champ Mike “Jewish Bomber” Rossman won the title in the 1970s); and the first Orthodox holder of a WBA title (many pugilists in the early 20th-century heyday of Jewish boxing came from traditional homes but were not religiously observant).
“It’s a great thing for the Jewish people,” Foreman says. “It’s great to be making a part of Israeli history. I’m very proud to represent Israel.”
Foreman’s singularity as a Jew, as an observant Jew, and his background as an immigrant two times who arrived in the U.S. nearly broke, guarantees more interest than a normal light middleweight fight would get.
“It’s not a hard sell at all,” says Dovid Efune, Foreman’s publicist.
“There are so many elements,” he says. “The fact that he’s Orthodox. The fact that he’s a rags-to-riches story. The fact that he’s the only Israeli in a championship fight.”
Like many Jewish boxers, Foreman wears trunks that feature a prominent Magen David on the side. On his T-shirt is a large Star of David and “Brooklyn” written in Cyrillic letters.
Foreman, who grew up in a typical assimilated Jewish home in eastern Belarus, is a friend of Dmitriy Salita, a fellow Lubavitch baal teshuvah boxer from the former Soviet Union who will also be fighting soon for a WBA title.
Two frum pugalists competing for championships within three weeks of each other?
“These bouts do not signify a renewal of interest in Jews becoming boxers,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “Some fans may be excited to have two of their kind in the ring — but it is unlikely that they would want their youngsters to follow in their footsteps.”
“It’s a coincidence,” says Bruce Silverglade, owner for nearly three decades of Gleason’s Gym, the fabled workout center in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. “We always have Jewish fighters. There are times when you have 15, 20 Jews in here.” But most of them are amateurs, just working out. “Why be surprised? Jews are tough people.”
In Gleason’s, a Spartan space filled with the sounds of muscular men and women slamming each other on wrestling mats, pounding punching bags and grunting on treadmills, Jews and other Caucasians are always outnumbered by blacks and Hispanics. Sometimes, says the Jewish Silverglade in jest, we have “a minyan” at the gym.
“We haven’t had top-quality Jewish fighters in a number of years,” Silverglade says. Not since the 1920s and the 1930s, the Golden Era of Jewish boxing champions, when fists were the tools that many young Jewish men, from émigré families, used to fight poverty.
Today’s American Jews, growing up in affluence, in suburbs, with aspirations to become doctors or lawyers, don’t put in the required hours in the gym and on the road that a boxing title demands, says Silverglade. He looks at Foreman and Salita and sees the image of Barney Ross and Benny Leonard, Jewish stars of a bygone time.
Gleason’s Gym, probably the only boxing facility outside of Israel with a mezuzah on the front doorpost, is full of newcomers, many of them from the FSU and Eastern Europe, Silverglade says. They’re hungry. “They have a different work ethic.”
Silverglade recognized a “different” when Foreman first walked in a decade ago, a few days after he arrived in the U.S. “He had a lot of potential as a fighter.”
“I explained in broken English,” Foreman remembers, “that I want to be a world champion.”
That meant working part-time in Manhattan’s Garment District and training the rest of the time. Then he became a Golden Gloves champion. Then he turned pro. Then he made enough money boxing to devote all his time to the sport. Then he discovered Judaism.
He and his wife Leyla, a Hungarian-born amateur boxer (they met at Gleason’s) and former fashion model, heard about a class being given in their Brooklyn neighborhood. The teacher was Rabbi DovBer Pinson, a Lubavitch scholar-author who heads the Iyyun Institute, a yeshiva in the borough’s Gowanus neighborhood.
Foreman was interested. “After three years of the American dream, I still felt something was missing.” In the middle of the class the rabbi “mentioned boxing,” Foreman says. “He didn’t know that I’m a boxer.” He and Leyla introduced themselves to Rabbi Pinson. A Shabbat invitation followed, and then more classes. The couple began to become more observant. “It was gradual,” Foreman says.
The rabbi offered an ordination program at his yeshiva a few years ago, and Foreman signed up. “I wanted to learn more,” the boxer says. With two years of rabbinical studies under his belt, he has two years of semicha preparation remaining. One day, Foreman says, he wants to go back to Israel and work with youth from his immigrant background. “I want,” he says half in jest, “to achieve a world title in Judaism.”
These days he splits his days between studying at the yeshiva and training at the gym, and running the streets of Brooklyn at night.
These days when he walks into the Crown Heights headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, he says, he’s mobbed by supporters. “All of them are Russian,” Foreman says.
These days he occasionally hears the questions thrown at any Orthodox boxer. How can you do it? Isn’t boxing a violation of Jewish law? What if you hurt somebody?
The critics don’t land a punch. “I don’t care what people think,” Foreman says — not, at least, what the self-appointed mavens who don’t know him think. “Why should it bother me? They don’t know halacha.” He’s asked his rabbis, and they say boxing for a living is “muttar,” permissible.
Boxing, Foreman says, has helped him focus on goals. It’s taught him discipline. “Boxing is something spiritual in its own way,” he likes to say. “I’m not trying to hurt someone. I’m trying to win.”
“They” — the critics in the Jewish community — “are always saying ‘you cannot hurt your fellow man,'” Foreman told The Daily News. “But when you actually do it for a living and your fellow man signed a contract, he’s aware he’s going to get hit.”
According to online boxing blogs, Foreman (27-0 as a pro) faces a tough night in the ring against Santos, who at 34 has earned a 32-3-1 record and an Olympic bronze medal.
Foreman says he’s overcome the odds before. When he first entered an Arab gym in Israel — the sport is more accepted in the country’s Arab community than in most Jewish circles — he faced outright hostility from Arab fighters. “They tried to knock my head off.” He stayed, took the blows, kept training, and eventually became an Israeli champion.
When he got to Gleason’s he was tested anew, as any rookie is. “Everyone is tested,” Silverglade says. “He wasn’t tested because he was a Jew. In a boxing gym, everyone is equal.” Every newcomer takes his lumps, he says. “Once you know he’s a fighter,” that he doesn’t back down, “he is accepted,” Silverglade says.
Foreman passed the test. “He has the potential to be a world champion,” Silverglade says. His gym has already produced 131 world champions, their pictures and posters decorating the walls. “We’re hoping that Yuri will be the 132nd.”
Since turning pro in 2002, Foreman has steadily moved up the WBA rankings, until he earned the shot at the title. “Hard work pays off,” he says.
During his workout, Foreman shows the drive, the concentration, the single-mindedness that a champ-to-be needs, jumping and jabbing and punching without a break for nearly two hours.
Midway, Leyla walks in for her own workout, a few yards away; Foreman winks, doesn’t say a word. Neither does Leyla. That’s boxing, Foreman says. “It’s a 24/7 commitment, lots of training, lots of nerves.”
Glamour? “The glamour,” the boxer who wants to be a rabbi says, “is only the fight — and that’s only when you win.”